The Black Fish: undercover with the vigilantes fighting organised crime at sea

Date: February 24, 2016

Source: The Guardian
Author: Matthew Green

On 2 August, a flotilla of white-hulled fishing boats assembled in Sant’Agata di Militello, a port in northern Sicily, in the late afternoon sun. As a brass band played, a holiday crowd gathered along the quay. A float bearing a statue of the Virgin Mary, crowned with a halo of gold and decorated with white flowers, was loaded onto one of the craft. With the priest and the brass band on board, the vessel, decked out in palm fronds, puttered out into the bay. As the Madonna was borne over the waves in the annual ritual to bless the sea’s harvest, onlookers crowded onto the other boats, which began to follow in the vessel’s wake, their lights winking on in the dusk.

While the crowd’s eyes were fixed on the Madonna, a clean-cut, compactly-built man with neat blond hair joined the melee and crossed a gangplank onto one of the boats. As the skipper cast off, his craft now filled with revellers, the blond man slipped below deck, unseen. The stowaway, a Dutchman named Wietse van der Werf, was a former ship’s engineer and knew his way around boats. He soon found what he was looking for: an orange nylon driftnet neatly folded under a tarpaulin. Known as “curtains of death” for the indiscriminate destruction they visit on whales, seabirds, dolphins and sharks, such nets – which can be 20km long and the height of a 10-storey building – are subject to strict international controls. As guests on deck watched fireworks bursting above the bay, Van der Werf filmed the driftnet on his phone.

When the fireworks above Sant’Agata faded, the flotilla returned to the harbour, illuminated by the glare of sodium lights. Waiting until the guests had disembarked, Van der Werf casually took a picture of another driftnet piled on the aft deck, gave the captain a friendly nod, then hopped ashore. Relieved to have escaped undetected, he drove back to the “safe house” – a nondescript apartment he had rented in a seaside village 20km down the coast – and downloaded the images onto his laptop.

With his faintly bookish air, Van der Werf would more easily pass as the founder of a disruptive online startup than an undercover detective. Nevertheless, his clandestine trip was just the kind of amateur sleuthing he sees as key to defeating a growing threat: the lucrative illegal fishing industry supported by organised crime.

Where once crime syndicates focused on more familiar black market commodities – cocaine or heroin; arms; smuggled crude oil; trafficked women – law enforcement officials say that cartels are discovering opportunities in the more innocuous-sounding world of fisheries. In 2013 Interpol launched Project Scale, an initiative to coordinate the fight against transnational fisheries crime, estimated to be worth up to $23bn a year. The offences vary widely – from flouting international rules designed to protect fragile stocks in the northern hemisphere, to the trawling of nominally protected but barely policed waters in some parts of the south. It is an appealing proposition for criminal gangs: illicit catches can command enormous sums of money and there is very little risk of being caught. “Sometimes I think I’d like to make an advert of police munching doughnuts as an old lady gets robbed right in front of them,” Van der Werf told me. “That’s the reality in our oceans every day: crimes are committed and the police are not doing anything.”

The more endangered the species, the higher the price. In Italy, prosecutors suspect the mafia is involved in the trade in illegally caught Atlantic bluefin tuna: magnificent, half-tonne predators fished in the Mediterranean since Roman times. Drug-smuggling gangs have muscled in on the illicit trade in Russian caviar, eggs laid by leatherback sea turtles on Costa Rican beaches, and South Africa’s harvest of abalone, a sea snail considered a delicacy in parts of south-east Asia. In Scotland, police say eastern European gangs are using live cables to electrocute razor clams, scooping up daily catches worth £65,000.

These are sophisticated criminals. “They have legal advice, they have accountancy advice, they’ve got enough money to bribe people,” says Alistair McDonnell, an Interpol criminal intelligence officer who runs Project Scale. “There are significant business models where the criminal benefits are in the hundreds of millions of dollars – you don’t do that in your garden shed.”

The illegal activity is piling additional pressure on oceans already suffering from rapacious but perfectly legal industrial fishing. Last year, the World Wildlife Fund published a report showing that the population of fish species exploited by humans has fallen by half since 1970. In January, another study suggested that the extent of overfishing was even worse than marine biologists had feared. Produced jointly by more than 50 institutions around the world, the report found the global catch peaked at 130m tonnes in 1996 and has declined sharply ever since – on average by about 1.2m tonnes every year. Disappointingly, the fall was not a result of better regulation, but a sign that fish are becoming scarcer. The findings formed a grim backdrop to a high-level EU seminar on the deteriorating situation in the Mediterranean, held in the Sicilian city of Catania in early February. “The more scientific knowledge we get for the state of the Mediterranean, the bleaker the picture gets,” said Karmenu Vella, European commissioner for the environment, maritime affairs and fisheries.

Van der Werf believes he has an answer. After several years spent with ecowarriors pursuing Japanese whalers in the Antarctic, he returned to Amsterdam in 2010 and founded his own organisation to document illegal fishing, using startup funds that consisted of a €350 loan from his mother. He named his new movement the Black Fish – after the term used for contraband catches.

The organisation, which is effectively a self-appointed maritime intelligence agency, has expanded rapidly across Europe. These days, Van der Werf leads teams working incognito from north Africa and the Baltic to southern Italy and the estuaries of the Cumbrian coast. The core of self‑taught investigators include a human rights lawyer, a nurse, a forensic scientist, a postman and a train driver on the London Underground.

Last summer, in Sicily, Van der Werf launched the most important and riskiest part of his strategy: deploying the vanguard of a much larger, Europe-wide army of volunteers trained to stake out beaches, fish markets and ports while posing as tourists. The team, known as the Citizen Inspector Network, is expected to double in number this year to 150, forming what the Black Fish describes as the world’s largest volunteer fisheries monitoring group. “If we want to strengthen maritime security around illegal fishing, it actually isn’t about bringing in the world’s big guns and navies,” Van der Werf told me. “The reality is that it’s an odd, eclectic group of people that is going to think strategically and deliver.”

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